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Conflict Casts Long, Lethal Shadow in Eastern Congo

In a region plagued by conflict, disease and hunger have become deadly enemies for the displaced people of eastern Congo.

The hospital director has been pleading for more medicine, but the government has not yet provided any, and the resupply route is daunting. The most direct route between Walikale and the provincial capital of Goma is one deep, muddy trench after another, often crawling with rebels; though the distance is only 250 miles or so, the journey can take as long as a month. Instead, trucks travel a 2,500 mile, four-day horseshoe route.

Last month, the hospital's doctors -- most of whom scrape by on charity, having never been paid by the government during their employment there -- began telling patients to buy their own medicine.

Salumu Luhembwe, the doctor who examined Mihigo, quickly suspected advanced typhoid fever, probably acquired from drinking water contaminated with feces. His intestines had holes and his abdomen was full of puss. "We needed to operate on him," said Luhembwe, 35. "But we didn't have all the materials."

If Mihigo's friends could find it, they needed to buy fuel for a generator, anesthesia, antibiotics, rehydration fluid, blood and a long list of other items whose cost totaled more than $200.

"For displaced people, it's impossible," said Luhembwe, who has bought medicine for patients but could not manage this time. "Usually in these cases, family would collect money to help. He had no family. Really, it was very sad."

And so three days passed, Mihigo got worse, and Balaluka could only watch when his friend trembled and faded away, becoming part of an increasingly staggering statistic.

"He died from an association of so many things -- because he left his farm, because he got sick in the jungle, because he reached an area without any means," Luhembwe said. "Even if he died from typhoid fever, the genesis was fleeing."

There was no money for a funeral, so a hospital worker dug a grave amid the tall grass and palms behind the hospital, where there were many other freshly dug mounds. In the early morning, Balaluka and Tumusifu offered a prayer before Mihigo's unmarked grave, some words, Tumusifu recalled, about "finishing the trip peacefully."

Their friend was buried in the same clothes in which he had fled two months before.

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